Farmers says Reef, water pricing still need to be addressed

Farmers say the key issues of reef regulations and water pricing still need to be addressed.

In congratulating Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk and the ALP on their election win, CANEGROWERS chairman Paul Schembri said farmers were continuing to campaign for a policy environment in which the cane industry and regional communities could thrive and grow.

“As grower representatives, we will be on the doorstep as soon as relevant ministers are announced and we will be ready to work alongside the government,” Mr Schembri said.

“The premier will need to consider ministerial appointments carefully to ensure regional Queensland has a direct and effective conduit into government.

Mr Schembri said the election of a new parliament provided an opportunity for a fresh approach by the Palaszczuk government.

“We’ll begin the conversation with the eight point plan of measures that CANEGROWERS advocated for during the campaign – measures to remove the obstacles in the way of the sugarcane industry and unleash its potential,” he said.

Mr Schembri said top of the list was the need to confront the myths and misconceptions on which the regulation of farm practices in Great Barrier Reef catchments in based.

“After 10 years of ALP reef regulations, it is time for an urgent review,” Mr Schembri said.

“Farmers have done a lot of work to balance the needs of water quality for the resilience of the Great Barrier Reef with maintaining productivity and profitability.

“The global market recognises the sustainability credentials of our industry – we just need the Queensland Government to do so.

“The regulatory approach is outdated and unnecessary.”

Mr Schembri said Labor had acknowledged in the final week of the campaign that water costs for irrigators were too high.

However, the announced 15 per cent cut for broadacre crops (including cane) compared to the 50pc cut horticulture needed to be worked through, he said.

“We can’t see how the differential pricing system… is going to work.

“We will be encouraging the new Queensland Government to make good its promise but to take a simpler approach and help all of agriculture by reducing the cost of all irrigation water by 50pc.”

Mr Schembri said the cane industry produced 400,000 hectares of stored energy each year.

Irrigation boost for cane growers in Burdekin and Bundaberg

Irrigation innovation hubs are being established in key sugar cane growing regions in a bid to help farmers better manage their crops and increase profitability.

Cane growers in the Burdekin district are teaming up with researchers from the University of Southern Queensland with the aim to produce bigger yields through irrigation management.

USQ project lead Michael Scobie is working with a range of experts to develop the skills and capacity of local extension and service providers which will ultimately help farmers produce more cane.

“This project is really looking at helping people involved in the sugar cane industry get better at managing, understanding and assessing their irrigation assistance performance,” Mr Scobie said.

“The idea is to build up the capacity for people who are existing and working in this industry.

“From consultants to extension officers, individuals work one-on-one with our researchers to develop their skills.

“Whether it’s assessing pumps and irrigation systems, developing new technologies or implementing better strategies to reduce water loss, it’ll mean delivering bigger profits for sugar cane growers.”

Sugar cane is one of Australia’s biggest and thirstiest crops, with an estimated 160,000 hectares under irrigation, lapping up millions of litres of water a year.

The project is part of a broader scheme – the Australian Government’s Smarter Irrigation for Profit (Phase 2) – which brings together experts to improve irrigation performance across cotton, grains, sugar cane, dairy and rice industries.

USQ’s Dr Malcolm Gillies is working on a project to modernise the labour intensive process of furrow irrigation.

It builds on a Sugar Research Australia funded project in the Burdekin four years ago, which saw growers successfully move to automation.

Since then, there has been additional investment in furrow automation systems and Dr Gillies said researchers were looking to see if the learnings could be applied further south.

“USQ is working with growers across the Bundaberg and Burdekin regions to… see if the automation of systems is feasible and secondly to see which technologies are applicable and to see whether the economics stack up,” Dr Gillies said.

“As part of the… program we’re working across multiple industries so some of the learnings we have made in the cotton industry we are transferring those to the sugar industry.

“There is a large range of new technologies and new equipment becoming available and our role as researchers is to help growers use that technology to its best advantage.”

Mr Scobie said the sugar industry faced difficult issues including challenging weather conditions and low world sugar prices, which could reduce productivity and profitablity.

“Improving irrigation and water management on the farm, is one key approach to making sure that the industry remains vibrant and viable.”

Paradise Dam wall reduction stoush continues

With the state election just days away, a war of words between the major parties over the structural integrity of Paradise Dam in the Wide Bay-Burnett region continues.

The 300,000 megalitre Paradise Dam wall was slated to be reduced by five metres from May 2020, after Sunwater raised safety concerns about the dam wall’s integrity, effectively reducing the capacity of the dam.

The Commission of Inquiry’s 563-page report was tabled in Queensland Parliament in May, with the Palaszczuk government accepting all eight of the report’s recommendations.

Natural Resources, Mines and Energy Minister Dr Anthony Lynham said community safety and providing long-term water security in the Bundaberg and Burnett regions remained the Labor government’s priority.

“All options remain on the table – including returning the dam to its original height – while Sunwater and Building Queensland conduct further testing,” Dr Lynham said.

“I have repeatedly assured farmers that the dam yield will be restored.”

BURNETT RIVER: The 300,000 megalitre Paradise Dam is being reduced by 5m after safety concerns were raised about the dam wall's integrity.
BURNETT RIVER: The 300,000 megalitre Paradise Dam is being reduced by 5m after safety concerns were raised about the dam wall’s integrity.

LNP agriculture spokesman Tony Perrett said if elected, they would put the safety of local residents first, while working to fix Paradise Dam for the benefit of the entire Wide Bay-Burnett community.

“The LNP will work with international experts to stabilise Paradise Dam and undertake the work required to restore its former capacity, guaranteeing farmers throughout the region long-term water and economic security,” Mr Perrett said.

“The LNP’s vision for building dams is in complete contrast to Labor’s failure to build any new dams in regional Queensland over the last 15 years.”

 QFF CEO Dr Georgina Davis said new water infrastructure was needed in the regions to provide more opportunities for high value agriculture.

Queensland Farmers’ Federation CEO Dr Georgina Davis encouraged all political parties to advance water infrastructure for the future of the state and to ensure farmers could continue producing world class food, fibre and foliage.

“After recently partnering with consulting firm Jacobs, QFF identified the top five irrigation water infrastructure projects the next parliament should prioritise to deliver sustainable economic growth and jobs to rural and regional communities,” Dr Davis said.

“We note that other than the Lockyer Valley, the other projects have not yet received support under the Queensland LNP’s water infrastructure announcement, let alone from other political parties, which have failed to make any commitment toward a ‘pipeline’ of essential water infrastructure.”

Premier’s commitment to reduce water charges provides confidence boost to regional economy

 The Australian Sugar Milling Council (ASMC) welcomed today’s announcement from the Palaszczuk Government to cut irrigation water costs for Queensland’s sugarcane growers by 15 per cent for three years from July 2021 if re-elected.

“Increasing overseas competition, depressed global sugar prices, and rising production costs compounded by the far-reaching impacts of the coronavirus pandemic has subjected the industry to unprecedented stress,” ASMC Chief Executive Officer, David Pietsch said.

“A price cut will reverse a decades long trend of SunWater’s regulated water charges increasing annually and will now make water more affordable for the two-thirds of the state’s canegrowers that rely on irrigation.

“Affordable water provides cane growers with a greater incentive to increase their water usage and take full advantage of their water access entitlements. 

Labor’s decision to cut irrigation water charges by 15% from 1 July next year follows pledges from the LNP and KAP to reduce water prices by 20% and 25% respectively.

“Regardless of the election result, there are now commitments to reduce water charges across the political spectrum,” he added.

“The resulting boost in cane productivity will translate into an increase in sugar, molasses and renewable power generation that will immediately improve mill viability and support regional jobs,” he said.

Mr Pietsch said ASMC calculations[1] estimated that a 15% cut in water prices would generate around $132 million in additional economic activity over four years, or around $100 million over the three years 2021/22 to 2023/24 of the scheme. A 25% cut was estimated to deliver $220m in community benefits.

“The Queensland sugar industry generates more than $4 billion to the Queensland economy and supports more than 23,000 jobs throughout the State,” Mr Pietsch said.

Labor, LNP and Australian Party promise cheaper water for Queensland farmers ahead of election

Bipartisan support has been given for cheaper water prices as the Queensland state election race enters the home stretch.

Labor joined the party to announce a 15 per cent reduction in water charges for farmers accessing the state-owned irrigation schemes, and half-price water specifically for fruit and vegetable growers.

This will start from July 2021.

Earlier this month the LNP announced they would cut water costs by 20 per cent and Katter’s Australian Party have promised a 25 per cent reduction.

The Australian Sugar Milling Council (ASMC) released a report earlier this year into irrigation water charges and their consistent increase over many years, putting forward a range of potential reductions between 15 and 25 per cent.

“So now we have commitments that fit within that range,” ASMC CEO David Pietsch said.

“It’s not just a benefit to the canegrowers and the sugar millers, it would also deliver broader benefits to the communities that rely on our industry.”

More questions than answers

Canegrowers CEO Dan Galligan said the industry was relieved to have secured solid promises from the major political parties.

He said the decrease would result in substantial savings for irrigators across growing regions

“So we’re talking tens of thousands of dollars, certainly for the average grower in the Burdekin, easily $10,000 to $15,000 will be saved by a 15 per cent reduction,” Mr Galligan said.

“The price of water and electricity were essential to our election pitch, so this is a really important initiative.”

A linear irrigator on wheels sprays water across a field.
Bipartisan support has been announced for cheaper water charges for irrigators across Queensland.(Supplied: Bundaberg Sugar)

But he said many questions still remained, including around the different reductions for cane and horticulture crops.

“Pumps don’t differentiate where the water is going, obviously, and a lot of our members grow more than just cane,” Mr Galligan said.

“So many irrigators will be trying to work out how that works if Labor forms government this weekend.”

‘We create the most jobs’

In the far north of the state Joe Moro has a crop of mangoes that are drip fed from the Mareeba-Dimbulah irrigation scheme.

He said the interest all major state parties have taken in water pricing is timely acknowledgement of the heavy lifting the industry has done this pandemic.

“By water pricing coming down, they acknowledge that it will create more jobs,” Mr Moro said.

“The horticulture industry is phenomenal for creating jobs, we create the most jobs in all the agriculture industries.

“And if farmers can make a dollar out of it, they will reinvest it.

“We have seen that in the Tablelands in particular, we will see more confidence.”

Bundaberg calls for more

Bundaberg-based macadamia grower Andrew Lewis said while the announcement was a step in the right direction, they need more.

“I think it’s good news but what we’d really like to see is a guarantee prior to the election for the Bundaberg region — Paradise Dam will be returned to full supply level,” he said.

“The 130,000 megalitres that are missing from that dam at the moment that will be a real guarantee that there will be jobs in the future.

Drone photo of construction vehicles and workers at spillway of Paradise Dam near Bundaberg.
One Bundaberg farmer is welcoming the announcement but wants to see more commitments around Paradise Dam.(ABC News: David Shipton)

Mr Lewis also wants to see more detail.

“Irrigation costs are a big consideration for us the cost of the actual water is probably two thirds of the cost and power would be the other third,” he said.

“You think about it every time you turn the pump on.

“It’d be interesting to see how long these price reductions continue on for — it’d be nice to think they go well into the future.

“In a COVID year we’ve all grown to understand that having access to fresh fruit and vegetables and everything else that comes from agriculture as well as jobs has been critical to powering the state of Queensland.”

Power price positive step but big issues remain

Sugarcane farmers’ group CANEGROWERS has welcomed as a win a new option to help Queensland irrigators manage high electricity costs but says more work is needed to fix all the issues in the power pricing system.

“The confirmation from the Queensland Competition Authority that a new control load tariff, called T34, will be available as a primary tariff to farmers from 1 November is a victory for irrigators and comes on the back of years of lobbying from CANEGROWERS and other farm groups,” CANEGROWERS CEO Dan Galligan said.

“I urge growers to carefully assess if T34 is right for them to ensure their business can benefit from a lower price for power but also not be affected by the risk of service delivery interruptions.”

CANEGROWERS is calling for the parties campaigning in the Queensland State Election to commit to a suite of agricultural electricity tariffs capped at 16c/kWh. T34 is close to that mark with a usage charge of 17.295 c/kWh and a daily fixed change of $1.18081 per day (both ex-GST).

Bundaberg grower Mark Pressler was part of a joint trial of the control load tariff run by CANEGROWERS and Energy Queensland and says he was impressed.

“The tariff delivered some worthwhile cost savings for my business and the service interruptions were manageable,” he said. “I’m looking forward to Ergon finalising its plan to send us text notifications so we know ahead of time when the power might be cut.”

While T34 is a positive step, Mr Galligan said it was not the solution to all of the problems with electricity pricing and CANEGROWERS would continue to campaign for an end to network gold plating practices and profit gouging by governments.

“Significantly more change is still needed to the electricity pricing system and we are calling on the Labor and Liberal National parties to commit to more action to improve affordability for farmers after the 31 October election,” Mr Galligan said.

“Successive Queensland Governments have used the electricity network as a cash cow and a form of farm business taxation by pulling out dividends worth up to $1.5 billion each year.

“Power companies have also been rewarded for overcapitalising on the network, what’s known as gold-plating. The network charge is about half of a power bill so when this goes up, profit margin of irrigators gets squeezed.

“Both of these systemic issues are yet to be addressed but if they are, and we see significant price cuts for irrigators across the board, production on farms will increase.”

The CANEGROWERS State Election 8-point plan lists the high costs of electricity and water as one of the obstacles holding the Queensland sugarcane industry back from realising its full potential.

Media comment: Dan Galligan | CANEGROWERS CEO | 0429 707 809

More information: Neroli Roocke | CANEGROWERS Communications | 0418 871 881

Note: The QCA has found indicative annual savings for typical users moving to T34 from other irrigation tariffs of:

$768 moving from T62

$1,116 moving from T65

$2,487 moving from T66

Supplementary review: Regulated retail electricity prices 2020–21